Murkowski sees ANWR goal slip away in 2001

PHOTO/Courtesy Alaska Railroad Corp.
ANCHORAGE -- Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge never seemed closer than in 2001 for Alaska Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski.

Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time in 45 years, and energy policy was high on their agenda. Murkowski himself was chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.

But Murkowski returned to Alaska at year’s end without the ANWR legislation he sought. What went wrong?

Murkowski, the Senate’s prime champion of ANWR drilling, blames Jim Jeffords. When the Vermont senator left the Republican Party in June, declaring himself independent, the balance of power in the Senate shifted to the Democrats.

"And with that went the (committee) chairmanships," Murkowski said, looking back on the year. "Instead of setting the energy agenda for America, we kind of took the position of having it dictated to us by my good friend, Senator Jeff Bingaman."

Bingaman, the New Mexico Democrat who now chairs the Energy Committee, sat on the energy bill for a few months, and then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., pulled it from the committee and kept it off the Senate floor.

Murkowski said those events kept him from passing an ANWR bill.

Environmentalists say it isn’t that simple.

It’s hard to say what would have happened if the Senate had stayed in Republican hands, said Elliott Negin, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"I think it’s true that Jeffords did definitely slow the Senate down on energy," Negin said.

On the other hand, Jeffords was always against drilling in ANWR, and his defection didn’t change any yeas or nays, Negin said. It takes 60 votes to get most controversial measures through the Senate, and it’s pretty clear Murkowski doesn’t have them.

At least, that how it looks.

"It’s hard really to know," Negin said. "We didn’t think we were going to get killed that badly on the House vote."

In an August coup for Alaska Rep. Don Young, the House overwhelmingly approved an energy bill that would boost domestic production, in part by allowing drilling on the coastal plain of the refuge. A bid by opponents to strip ANWR drilling from the bill failed 223-206.

The House energy bill will be alive until the current two-year Congress expires at the end of 2002, but Murkowski may meet more resistance as time goes on.

"In most Congresses, the heavy lifting gets done in the first 18 months or so,’’ said John Katz, head of Gov. Tony Knowles’ Washington, D.C., office.

"Conventional wisdom is controversial issues do not fare well in the waning months of an election year."

President Bush supports drilling in ANWR, which was a central element of the energy plan he introduced, and his Cabinet secretaries have made repeated pitches for drilling. But there’s no evidence the president has been using his political muscle to persuade key senators to come to Murkowski’s side.

Murkowski acknowledged he hasn’t had as much White House help as he would like, but he expects to get more in the new year.

"I’ve had some discussions with the vice president, and we (Vice President Dick Cheney, Murkowski and other Senate drilling supporters) are going to be meeting in January to work up kind of a task force approach," he said.

01/06/2002 - 8:00pm